When it comes to stirring up paranormal trouble, my guiding principle boils down to this: Don’t start none, won’t be none.
I steer clear of séances. I don’t chant the names Bloody Mary, Candyman, or Beetlejuice in any quantity. And I don’t shop for antique dolls, of which at least 9 out of 10 are clearly housing malevolent spirits.
It may be true, as the noted paranormal investigator Hamlet of Denmark put it, that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your rationalist philosophy. But it’s also true that I am a scaredy-cat. Or, as the noted paranormal investigator Shaggy of Scooby-Doo put it, Zoinks!
As you might expect, the likes of Shaggy are in short supply on a late-night “ghost hunt” at the Lizzie Borden House, described on its website as “America’s most haunted” residence. Far from letting the departed rest in peace, ghost hunters beseech their quarry to get all riled up and display physical manifestations. Apparently I’m the only one who has ever seen a scary movie.
If the dead tend to linger at scenes of violence and unfinished business, then it should perhaps come as no big shock that the forest green clapboard building at 230 Second Street in postindustrial Fall River, Massachusetts (about 60 miles south of Boston), has become a locus of ghostly encounters.
(Site of Andrew Borden's murder at the Lizzie Borden House in Fall River, Massachusetts | Credit: Zac Thompson)
This is, after all, where one of the most infamous unsolved crimes in U.S. history took place: the grisly, hatchet-assisted double murder of prosperous but stingy businessman Andrew Borden and his second wife, Abby, on the morning of August 4, 1892. Andrew’s adult daughter Lizzie and the family’s maid, Bridget Sullivan, were the only other people who admitted to being in the house at the time of the killings.
Amid a media frenzy, Lizzie Borden was arrested, tried, and acquitted, then sentenced to an eternity of pop-culture theorizing in books, movies, TV documentaries, podcasts, comic books, theatrical adaptations (including a rock musical that “slays,” according to the poster of a 2023 Boston production), and one poorly fact-checked nursery rhyme.
In 1996, the Lizzie Borden House was converted into a museum and B&B. Not long afterward, guests began reporting spooky happenings ranging from flickering lights and self-opening doors to the sounds of giggling children and visions of spectral figures floating through the rooms.
In 2021, the house was acquired by tour operator U.S. Ghost Adventures, which offers historical haunted experiences—guided strolls, pub crawls, haunted house stays—in more than 75 cities across the country.
Company founder Lance Zaal told me that after purchasing the Lizzie Borden House, U.S. Ghost Adventures made some much-needed structural repairs, improved the online reservations portal, installed an electronic lock with a code so that overnighters can come and go at will via a side entrance, added new programming, and stocked a bunch of new merch in the gift shop.
(Souvenirs for sale in the gift shop at the Lizzie Borden House in Fall River, Massachusetts | Credit: Zac Thompson)
Many of these souvenirs are hatchet-themed, such as a cuddly, ax-wielding teddy bear ($18), dainty hatchet-shaped earrings ($15), and a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Don’t Make Me Axe You Twice” ($30). You can also buy an honest-to-goodness hatchet ($45); it comes in a black box bearing an image of Lizzie Borden clutching the item and, on the back of the package, a helpful disclaimer: “Not Recommended for Murder.”
According to Zaal, U.S. Ghost Adventures, despite its name, doesn’t tailor its offerings at the house toward “the ghost crowd” or the “die-hard history crowd,” but toward the general public.
“My philosophy has been, we want this to be a place where everybody can have a good experience,” he explained. “I don’t care what their motivation is, whether they’re curious, whether they want a new experience. … Maybe they believe or they’re skeptics. I want people to leave thinking, Wow, that was really cool.”
(Hatchet-wielding tour guide at the Lizzie Borden House in Fall River, Massachusetts | Credit: Zac Thompson)
The House Tour
Among the tours available onsite, the most popular, Zaal says, is the daytime historical tour ($30 per person), a 90-minute guided walk through the three floors of the house that's offered daily from 10am to 4pm. Along the way, guides give an exhaustive account of the crimes, the suspects’ alibis, the messy police investigation, the well-publicized trial, and the aftermath (once acquitted, the defendant moved to another Fall River house called Maplecroft, still privately owned).
No original furnishings remain in the house on Second Street, but the place has been done up in the be-doilied, floral-pattern-heavy style favored by Victorians of the Bordens’ era, with some creepy touches, such as framed copies of the case’s famous crime scene photos in the parlor and, near Sullivan’s attic-level bedroom, a few old-timey dolls you just know are plotting to kill you in your sleep.
(Decor at the Lizzie Borden House in Fall River, Massachusetts | Credit: Zac Thompson)
Costumes from 1975’s TV movie The Legend of Lizzie Borden (starring Elizabeth Montgomery of Bewitched in the title role) face a replica of the sofa where Andrew Borden was lying when he was killed. In the dining room, luridly lit display cases contain artifacts such as Lizzie’s book collection and replicas of the victims' badly fractured skulls.
(Displays at the Lizzie Borden House in Fall River, Massachusetts | Credit: Zac Thompson)
My favorite detail in the house: The sheet music on the piano is for a song called "Lizzie Borden" that goes “you can’t chop your poppa up in Massachusetts.”
(Inside the Lizzie Borden House in Fall River, Massachusetts | Credit: Zac Thompson)
The Guest Rooms
When I told a fellow tourgoer that I’d be sleeping at the house, her eyes widened in what I would describe as genuine horror. “Be careful,” she said with a startling intensity that instantly convinced me I wouldn’t survive the night.
After the last daytime house tour concludes late in the afternoon, overnight guests can check into one of three suites on the second floor or three smaller rooms on the third. The most requested room, according to the house’s previous owners, is the family’s spare bedroom ($300 per night for two people), where Abby Borden was found murdered.
(Site of Abby Borden's murder at the Lizzie Borden House in Fall River, Massachusetts | Credit: Zac Thompson)
You can also spend the night in a two-room suite ($275 per night for two) that combines the austere bedrooms of Lizzie and her sister, Emma (who wasn’t home when her father and stepmother were killed), or in the Andrew & Abby Suite ($300 per night for two) comprising the victims’ bedroom and Abby’s sewing room.
(Lizzie Borden's bedroom at the Lizzie Borden House in Fall River, Massachusetts | Credit: U.S. Ghost Adventures)
Up on the third floor, you’ll find the onetime maid’s quarters and, down the hall, the Andrew Jennings Room and the Hosea Knowlton Room, named for Lizzie Borden’s defense lawyer and prosecutor, respectively. (The nightly rate for all three rooms is $250 each for two guests.)
I got the Jennings room—the least haunted chamber in the building, or, at any rate, the spot with the fewest recorded incidents, according to my tour guide.
The scariest thing about the room, it seemed to me, was the lack of an en suite bath. (Only those staying in the Andrew & Abby Suite have a private bathroom; everybody else has to share the house’s two remaining bathrooms—one per floor).
(Andrew Jennings Room at the Lizzie Borden House in Fall River, Massachusetts | Credit: Zac Thompson)
Because the house’s interior is preserved to look as it might have in the 1890s, the décor in my room was stark and amenities were few. Don’t expect a TV or mini bar. What’s more, one of my two bedside lamps didn’t function, the mattress was on the wobbly side, the room’s location right under the pitched roof means the ceiling slopes sharply, and an emergency exit sign pointing to the back stairs stays illuminated all night long (consider packing a sleep mask).
But the chief draw of spending the night isn’t comfort. It’s the adventure of getting up close and personal to a historic mystery and possibly having a brush with the paranormal. My next-door neighbor in the Hosea Knowlton Room echoed that sentiment when I asked what he thought about the tour guide’s claim that ghosts have been known to tug on the toes of guests sleeping in that room.
“They’d better!” he said.
Zaal, the house’s owner, told me that he has had his own spooky experiences at the house, while staying in the Abby & Andrew Suite. “It has two bedrooms,” Zaal said, “and one of my employees and I were each staying in our own bedroom. He thought I was walking through the room in a white nightgown and I kept trying to turn the doorknob. And [later] I was like, Well, that wasn’t me. I don’t own a white nightgown.”
According to Zaal, one of the new management’s goals is to do a better job of documenting these occurrences, setting up cameras to capture strange incidents and inviting guests to submit testimonials. I am relieved to report I had nothing to submit.
The Ghost Hunt
You don’t have to reserve a room to court the house’s resident poltergeists, though. You can also book a spot in one of the nightly ghost hunts ($40 per person), which begin at 10pm and unfold throughout the first floor and the basement. (These events were previously held periodically, Zaal said, but after acquiring the house he made the hunt a nightly event and also added a guided ghost tour through the streets of Fall River.)
Though house rules for overnight guests clearly state, “No outside alcohol or Ouija boards,” communicating with the spirit realm by other methods is by no means frowned upon. In fact, at the start of the ghost hunt I attended with a dozen or so other intrepid souls, our guide distributed several tools to us for the very purpose of receiving signals from the other side.
(Electromagnetic field radiation detector and haunting log at the Lizzie Borden House in Fall River, Massachusetts | Credit: Zac Thompson)
We were given handheld meters for detecting electromagnetic field radiation, divining rods for getting answers to yes-and-no questions from the beyond (crossed rods mean “yes”; rods pointing away from each other mean “no”), plastic balls that light up when they detect motion (pretty sure these were cat toys), and electronic “Spirit Boxes” that quickly scan radio frequencies, picking up stray words amid all the static that, some paranormal investigators believe, could be attempts by ghosts to communicate with the living.
Thus armed, we were sent off in small groups to find what we could find. The experience wasn’t super-structured, so I glommed onto a group composed of two married couples—one from New York State, the other from Austin, Texas—who seemed to know what they were doing. Both sets of duos told me they regularly search out ghost-related tourism opportunities in famously haunted locales such as New Orleans, Savannah, Georgia, and Salem, Massachusetts.
Of course they made a beeline for the basement, scientifically proven to be the scariest part of any building. In the low-ceilinged, stone-walled space, not far from where police found a hatchet during the Borden investigation and where Lizzie was discovered washing clothes in the middle of the night not long after the killings, we gathered around a low table upon which someone placed one of the motion-detector plastic balls. The lights were extinguished. I felt a zoinks! rising from within.
(Basement séance room at the Lizzie Borden House in Fall River, Massachusetts | Credit: Zac Thompson)
The woman from Texas took charge, grasping two divining rods and, in the cajoling tones of an indulgent preschool teacher, addressed the spirit of a child said to have drowned in a well next door. “There’s a ball here you can play with,” the would-be medium coaxed. “It makes lots of pretty colors. Can you touch it for me?”
I thought, Wait a minute. We’re asking this kid to travel across time and space and planes of being, not to reveal the mysteries of the universe, but to jostle a cat toy?
On the other hand, the politely familiar style of communing with the dead, used not only by the Texan but by all the ghost hunters I encountered, went a long way toward getting me past my initial petrification. Based on the questions everybody kept asking, I began to think maybe all that ghosts really want is to identify themselves and pull a prank or two, which basically makes them no more harmful than Ashton Kutcher on Punk’d.
Of course, in a scary movie that's exactly what the evil spirits would want you to think, just before unleashing who knows what mayhem.
In any case, the plastic ball did light up at one point, seemingly of its own accord.
To book a tour or overnight stay at the Lizzie Borden House, go to Lizzie-Borden.com.